Commentary: Richmond and Miller & Rhoads deserve better than the proposed City Center Park. 

More Than Nostalgia

Say what? Tear down the Miller & Rhoads building? Who came up with this cockeyed and Philistine idea anyway? Richmond Renaissance officials and others are aspiring Attilas the Hun in calling for the demolition of this historic and potentially exciting building to make way for a City Center Park. The proposed urban open space would occupy most of the block defined by Broad, Grace, Fifth and the Sixth Street Marketplace. It is envisioned as a front porch for the new convention hall and a centerpiece for the recently unveiled Grace Park Center Master Plan. The goal also is to shore up the ailing Grace Street retail district and add some life to this tawdry and depressing part of town. With the expanded Richmond Centre coming closer to reality, hordes of company are expected. And the powers-that-be are getting understandably twitchy. Do something, they're thinking. But do anything? Tearing down Miller & Rhoads would be a quick (but expensive) cosmetic fix. In the long-term, however (and knowing full well that Richmonders don't frequent downtown public open spaces without some overriding reason to do so), the building's loss would be devastating to the fabric of the center city both aesthetically and economically. For a century this venerable emporium (along with Thalhimers) was a beacon that shone westward past Lynchburg and southward to Raleigh, N.C.: Fifth and Grace was the stylish heart of the city. With its fashion, restaurants, bake shop and book, furniture and notions departments, Miller & Rhoads defined retail in much the same way that the Capitol symbolizes state government, Tredegar testified to industrial might or the suburban Reynolds Metals complex was a harbinger of edge cities. But the spin is churning. In discussing the fate of the department stores, one member of the city's commission of architectural review recently told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, "From an architectural standpoint, there is nothing important about them. They're not really historic, either. They are nostalgic." And nostalgia, she added, is not a valid reason for preservation. Excuse me. Without nostalgia — translated memory — Mount Vernon might be a riverfront subdivision called Potomac Acres, the Alamo a sandpile and Richmond's Old City Hall a parking lot. What is a community without a memory? Las Vegas and Short Pump come to mind. Folks, this is Richmond we're talking about. Last spring, an official at Richmond Renaissance, the private-public partnership which serves as a kind of Vatican of downtown development, whined to the Times-Dispatch that he was tired of viewing the vacant structure from his office window. If the building offends you sir, shut the blinds. Those who open their eyes to look— and not become cheerleaders for Richmond's latest fake pearl in a long strand of ill-conceived urban ideas— will see a building of tremendous architectural interest. And one with great economic potential. Architecture first. Miller & Rhoads, which shares its block with a handsome former Woolworth's store that should also be preserved (with contemporary architects rediscovering modernism, we should ensure our best modernist buildings are protected), is a complex structure. But its layers are easily readable. The Broad Street facade is a jazzy Art Deco rhapsody designed by the distinguished firm of Carneal and Johnson in 1930 to update an older facade. The arched windows with cast stone pylons and associated decoration marry classicism and middle eastern exoticism. Around the corner, the Grace Street facade was designed by Starrett & Van Vleck, a primo New York architecture firm celebrated for its sophisticated department store designs. Next time you're downtown, examine the polished marble base that girdles the building. Appreciate the elaborate classical detailing in tile and the handsome, buff-colored brick. If restored, the bronze canopies over the main entrances would be spectacular. The building's uppermost floors, distinctly modern, were designed by Carneal and Johnson (architect for many of our best older buildings). Miller & Rhoads is a building that grew over time, but got more interesting and richer in the process. It is a landmark of the highest order. Architecture aside, this building's mass provides an important anchor to the overall downtown fabric. Density is critical to grid city plans. One has only to travel a few blocks into nearby Monroe Ward (south of Cary between Third and Fifth) to see how quickly a city can deteriorate by demolishing buildings. Broad Street already has too many missing teeth with the demolition of Murphy's Hotel at Broad and Eighth along with negative spaces at both Broad and Ninth and at Tenth streets. With an open plaza on Broad and Fifth, the surrounding buildings would be amplified in importance and here, too, there's trouble. There are no strong urban walls to provide a backdrop to so expansive a space. The low-lying, skeletal Sixth Street Marketplace would be on the east, but elegant mostly one- and two-story retail buildings on the south and west would look stranded. The Marriott Hotel on the north, ill-designed but not interesting enough to be kitsch, is an irregular wall on the north. What is the point of ripping out the keystone? If the "City Center Plaza" is envisioned as a picture of lively urban life, the frame would be far too thin. Financially, the plan is curious. Why remove an entire city block from the tax rolls— a block that could be a prime retail space and result in tax revenues? If the convention center is designed to get people out-and-about and spending in the immediate area, why remove the closest places where cash registers could ring? Shops and eateries could be carved out of Miller & Rhoads on Broad, Fifth and Grace at street level: downtown needs more, not fewer, spaces for entrepreneurs. Significant office, hotel or living spaces could be established upstairs. Importantly, according to a number of developers, the property is worth many millions in tax credits and potential revenue. The property is worth zip as a plaza. Better that we program a dozen other, mostly unused downtown open spaces — Festival Park, Abner Clay Park, Kanawha Plaza, Fulmer Bright Park or Monroe Park. The "City Center Park" would just be another boondoggle. Baltimore is turning its former downtown Hecht's into 175 apartments. New York has made B. Altman's on Fifth Avenue a public library. Los Angeles has transformed a downtown Broadway department store into a state office building. We in Richmond can do better and Miller & Rhoads is

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